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Flint, MI–For 27 years, a house on the corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and 5th Avenue has served as a place of worship, learning, and community for the city’s Muslim population.
With none of the usual design elements of a mosque such as domes or minarets, The Muslim House serves as a humbling reminder that large structures and extravagant designs are not necessary to worship or serve.
While not as prominent as other, newer mosques, The Muslim House has remained a source of support and community for its members. That was the goal all along, said Imam Hanafi Malik, as he sat inside one of the house’s prayer rooms, a room he himself had a hand in building.
In the early ‘80s, he said, Flint’s Muslim population was praying in unconventional areas like hospital chapels and member’s houses. During that time Malik said, the Nation of Islam was the largest Muslim organization in Flint. Eventually, the NOI’s radical ideology, specifically its exclusion toward white people and white Muslims, led to a rift within the community, he said. Those who disagreed with the NOI’s ideals were then left with no place to worship.
“We prayed in Hurley Hospital, in its chapel, and we prayed in our houses. That was the Flint Orthodox Muslim community. We tried to worship along with the Nation of Islam but there was a pushback with them against quote-unquote white Muslims. That’s when we started going to the hospital and to our houses. ” Malik said.
In Malik’s view of Islam, “there is no discretion concerning the value of a person based on their ethnicity. Islam does not acknowledge that.” Muslims, he said, as people, do tend to make these distinctions but as a religion and a way of life. “There is nothing in the prophet’s words that justify that,” he said.
In 1985 members of what would soon come to be the Islamic Center of Flint purchased the former Cabana Club in Flint Township on Dyewood Drive. The space was used by Flint Muslims until 1995 when the ICF was officially opened on Corunna Road in Swartz Creek, about a 20- to 30-minute drive away from Flint.
That decision caused another rift in the Muslim community. As Malik explained it, the African American Muslims living in Flint decided to stay in Flint rather than make the commute to Swartz Creek a few times per week.
“I was like ‘why should we have to go way out there when there are so many Muslim people in Flint? You know, you have to catch a bus or a train to get out there just go and pray.’ So we thought of the idea to have a place here in the city where anybody can come to pray. It’s near I-475 so you can get here easily. It’s near the hospital and the university,” Malik said.
That same year, in 1995, as the ICF broke ground on what would eventually be a 73,000 sq. ft. facility made up of a fully furnished K-12 school as well as a mosque, those who decided to stay in Flint came together to purchase an old halfway house at the edge of downtown Flint.
Malik said when they bought the house, everything was in shambles, “you could step inside, look up and see the stars.”
“We used bedsheets as walls. We got people together and started putting the place together. We slowly did that and we’ve been rolling ever since,” Malik said.
From there, The Muslim House started growing into what it is today. Malik said over the years, services outside of just providing a place to pray started being offered. Food drives came first, followed by clothes drives, water distribution and counseling. The house even collaborates with the ICF for events like water drives.
One of the house’s newest members, Adrian Vargas, recently moved to Flint from North Carolina. Through a bit of research, trial and error and word of mouth, Vargas ended up at the front door of the Muslim House in September.
“Somebody had told me about the Muslim House. They said there are really great brothers there that could provide a place to pray. They offer the five daily prayers. When you are a Muslim you can pray pretty much anywhere but being able to do it inside of a masjid, a house of God, it is always an honor,” Vargas said.
Vargas said from his first interaction with Malik when he called to inquire about the house, he already felt welcome into a city he had spent just a few days in.
“I talked to the imam on the phone and I’ll never forget it, he said to me, ‘brother, pull back and rest your camel.’ That’s pretty much what brought me here.”
Vargas added that as someone who has traveled in the past, mosques like The Muslim House–places that offer newcomers a place to rest for a few days while they establish themselves in a new city as well as food and access to facilities like restrooms and laundry rooms–can sometimes have a large impact on both the person being helped and their view of the local Muslim community.
Sa’eed Littlejohn has been a member of The Muslim House for seven years. Before that, he had been part of another local mosque. Though he had been aware of The Muslim House’s existence for years, Littlejohn said he never got around to visiting it until he volunteered at a food giveaway.
“I think we were giving away food and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this place is really about the community.’ I am community-oriented so that’s what I love to do and I’ve been here ever since. And the imam is my companion now, he’s my best friend,” Littlejohn said.
The emphasis the house put on the community has made it into “a beacon of light,” said Littlejohn. Not just for the Muslim community but for the area surrounding the house itself.
“Everyone around this area, they know us. Even though we are all individuals, they know us as a collective. They know we want to help. You need some water? Here you go. You need a dollar? Here you go. Are you passing out food? Yes. It’s just a beacon of light where there is not a lot of light,” said Littlejohn, alluding to the fact the intersection of MLK and 5th serves as a gateway from downtown into some of the poorest neighborhoods in north Flint.
Though not as large or prominent as other mosques or Muslim organizations that have sprung up in Flint since the ‘90s, Littlejohn said The Muslim House is still a landmark and a safe space not only for Muslims but for anyone in the community who is in need.
“We love the people around here. Some of these people are our cousins, aunts and uncles and there is just a system of respect and compassion that’s been implemented here and it has continued on,” Littlejohn.